Big Pharma Pushes for New Antibiotic Funds to Fight Superbugs

  • Group of 83 companies asks governments to join global action
  • Antibiotic development hampered by lower pricing for new drugs

Pharmaceutical giants including GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Merck & Co. are joining a large group of health-care companies to accelerate the development of drugs and diagnostics for “superbug” infections, trying to come up with a viable commercial model as an increasing number of bacteria become resistant to common antibiotics.

QuickTake Antibiotic Resistance

The Declaration on Combating Antimicrobial Resistance, announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was signed by about 85 companies in the pharmaceutical, diagnostic, biotech and generic sectors, along with nine industry associations. The coalition wants to develop principles for the conservation of antibiotics globally and to call on governments to support the development of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics. 

At least 2 million people in the U.S. are infected by bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and 23,000 die each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While public health experts say the risk from infections has been growing, the pipeline of new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant “superbugs” hasn’t kept pace. That’s partly because they are difficult to discover and don’t command high prices, making the business model less profitable than for other treatments. While drugmakers charge more than $100,000 for the latest cancer drugs, new antibiotics can run in the range of a few thousand dollars.

“Over the last several years it was a real challenge to invest in antimicrobials,” said Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, one of the companies pushing for action. “If you go for a new antimicrobial focused on multi-drug-resistant bacteria, you essentially have to limit the market for that indication to a very small population.”

One outcome of the effort could be that an investment fund is created to commit to buying new antibiotics, Stoffels said. It would establish a dedicated market for drugs that don’t necessarily have large populations to treat, he said.

New Commercial Model

J&J has a treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, while GlaxoSmithKline is working on a product that could target multi-drug-resistant staph infection, gonorrhea and E. coli.

“At the moment, antibiotics for whatever reason aren’t really priced commensurate with their life-saving role,” said David Payne, head of GSK’s antibacterial discovery performance unit. New antibiotics don’t work within the traditional pharmaceutical sales model, which relies on driving prescription growth, because drugmakers can’t ensure wide use of the drugs.

The coalition is proposing new commercial models where the return on investment is not based on the number of prescriptions sold, but on a lump sum that could come from a government or a group of governments, Payne said.

“In that model, if it’s done appropriately, there’s no need to market your antibiotic or encourage people to use it,” he said.

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